Samuel Finley Breese Morse
A man revered for his art and his technical invention, Samuel F. B. Morse was born into a modest family headed by Jedediah Morse, a Congregational minister of Charlestown, Massachusetts, and a noted geographer. It was 27 April 1791. In years to come, reference to “Morse” meant Jedediah, and everyone called Samuel “Finley.”
Jedediah and Elizabeth Morse had lived in the parsonage in Charlestown for many years, and it became for them practically their only home. Finley was their first child, and would become their most famous, though only three boys lived into adulthood: Finley, Richard, and Sidney. Finley himself survived smallpox as a toddler. (Silverman, 2003, p. 4)
Education and Upbringing
Finley was sent to Phillips Academy preparatory school in Andover as a young child. To the dismay of his parents, he was an indifferent student, likely to let his mind wander to other interests than those favored by his instructors. His father kept up a steady stream of correspondence, continually encouraging his son to apply himself, to be careful in the choosing of his peers, and to be the best of the academy’s students.
Not until he entered Phillips Academy did Finley at last begin to apply himself to his studies. He began reading and writing both Greek and Latin, sending copies of his lessons to his father by letter. Jedediah was pleased; nonetheless, he continued to push Finley to improve on these offerings. He suggesting, for instance, that Finley write out his Latin for his instructor, have it corrected, and only then send the result to his father.
At eleven years of age, Finley chose drawing as one of his academic subjects. In short order, he discovered that he had fine talent in this area. When he told his father of his excitement concerning art, Jedediah remarked by return mail that this talent should remain secondary, “your amusement merely,” (Silverman, 2003, p. 9) though Finley Morse is remembered for both his technical and his artistic creations.
In 1805 Samuel F. B. Morse entered Yale College. Most entering students were sixteen, but Finley was fourteen and a half. With his home 160 miles distant (a thirty-hour trip), he wished for on-campus housing. It was not until 1807 that he was able to arrange to move onto the campus. (Silverman, 2003, p. 11)
Jedediah Morse’s postal exhortations continued regularly to mention the quality of study he wished his son to exhibit, and Finley attempted at times to live up to his father’s expectations. Elizabeth added her desires in her own parental notes for a steady disposition and a good heart. Finley displayed high interest in one subject, then turned his attention elsewhere and back again, to the consternation of instructors and his family.
While art consumed Finley’s attention, another subject presented itself as a glimpse into America’s future. Yale was where he made his first studies of electrical principles, a new field at the time. He found the topic so interesting that he worked for a summer as a lab assistant to feed his fascination. (Silverman, 2003, p. 13) He graduated in 1810.
Choosing a Career
Finley remained engaged in art throughout his educational years. Not one to let an opportunity for solid employment pass, Jedediah Morse procured a job for Finley with Morse’s publisher. He apparently believed that at some point Finley would want to follow in his father’s footsteps, perhaps becoming a geographer. After all, Morse’s books had gotten him invited to the tables of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington; how could Finley do better?
What Finley’s parents discovered was that his passion for art had grown through the years. At this point, he wanted to paint professionally, and Jedediah soon decided not to stand in his way. He and Elizabeth helped Finley go to England in 1811 to study painting. The family had very little, so this was a great sacrifice. Finley’s words may have indicated that he understood, but he seemed so taken with his own work that he simply forgot what others gave up to support it.
What he did discover when he returned home in 1815 was that Americans did not like the romantic style of his historical canvases nearly as much as the English did. Placing in the foreground heroic figures and historic personalities simply fell flat at home. (Mabee, 1985, p. 8:340)
Finding a Wife
Finley traveled widely as a portrait painter, common in that era among struggling artists. His struggles continued for some time, until in August 1816 he met the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Concord, New Hampshire, lawyer. Lucretia Pickering Walker was fresh and candid, and Finley, at age twenty-five, found her beautiful, as well.
Their eventual engagement led Finley to reconsider his career. Should he take up commercial portraiture, despite his declaration he would never do so? Perhaps he should give up art altogether and try another field. (Silverman, 2003, p. 45) He presented himself to younger brother Sidney to test the waters.
In early 1817 the brothers invented a flexible leather piston that could be used in bilge pumps for ships and also in fire engines, as an improvement over their old pumping method. The work was good, it was useful, and it was endorsed by no less a figure than Eli Whitney, himself a famous inventor. This propelled the brothers toward commercial success. (Silverman, 2003, p. 46)
Or at least it should have. Finley, returning to his indecisiveness of old, returned to painting. In fact, he set up a studio in Charleston, South Carolina, and took commissions for portraits. Charging $60 for one, he had as many jobs as he could responsibly handle, meaning that, for the first time, Finley had money to live. He could send money to his family, which they needed, given the many financial sacrifices they had made for his career to this point.
Lucretia Walker (“Lucrece” in his letters) and Finley Morse married in Concord on 29 September 1817, following his six months away in Charleston. He decided to try one more season in Charleston, with Lucrece, and found it very rewarding. He was able to send considerable monies to his parents, and he and Lucrece returned to Charlestown in style as the time came to bear their first child (September 1818).
Lucretia died in 1825 at the age of twenty-five. Finley was in Washington, D.C., observing the House debate concerning whether John Quincy Adams or Andrew Jackson should take the office of President. He wrote to tell her of this experience and received news from his father of her untimely and unexpected passing.
Finley Morse married Sarah E. Griswold, daughter of an Army officer, in Louisiana in 1848. She was two years younger than Finley’s daughter Susan Walker Morse, but of good character. She lost her hearing at the age of one, and through her facility with a too-quiet world was able to get on well with Morse’s son Finley, whose development was arrested by a childhood disease.
Sarah died in 1901.
Finley accepted appointment in 1832 as Professor of Painting and Sculpture at the new University of the City of New York (New York University). Despite his successes and positions of influence, he was again depressed about his finances and his prospects for the future. He continued to paint, and even became embroiled in partisan politics, failing as a candidate for the office of mayor of New York.
In 1837 Finley received an emotional blow that led to ill health. He was passed over for a commission to paint for the Capitol, and this mortified him. (Silverman, 2003, p. 145)
That same year, Finley discovered there were others working on the telegraph, an idea he had broached five years in the past. Though his own device was crude, it was accurate, and Sidney published news of Finley’s invention “several years since” in the “Boston Observer” (of which he was editor), intentionally omitting Finley’s name. That was published in an article in the Journal of Commerce: “Professor Samuel F. B. Morse, the President of the National Academy of Design.” (Silverman, 2003, p. 150)
Finley worked very hard to present working demonstrations of his telegraph machine. He learned more about power and relay requirements, and, with the collaboration of Alfred Vail, improved his equipment in both materials and design.
There was no doubt of Finley’s inventive skills, but his relationships-such as with Alfred Vail and others-tended to suffer from inattentiveness and lack of understanding on his part. In this case, though Finley relied upon Alfred’s family’s money, still he treated Alfred more as an assistant than the partner he was. They had a written agreement to that effect. (Silverman, 2003, p. 168)
Even in the face of this treatment, Alfred confirmed backhandedly in 1838 that Finley was the one who invented Morse Code. He was complaining to his father about Morse’s behavior, but he left no doubt that Finley created this system of intelligence for the telegraph device.
Following congressional recognition of Morse’s “electro magnetic telegraph,” the partnership was renewed and enlarged. Its principals were Morse; Francis O. J. Smith, congressman of Maine; Alfred Vail; and Leonard Gale, who solved Finley’s battery power problems.
Finley Morse is remembered for his invention of the telegraph and the Morse Code. He finally secured patent rights in 1854, after years of acrimonious legal fights, including a case before the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, these fights were against both his partners and other inventors.
In November 1869, Finley’s Examination of the Telegraphic Apparatus and the Processes in Telegraphy was published by the Government Printing Office. It reads like an autobiography from the viewpoint of The Inventor (Finley’s self-image). However many other hands contributed to the rise of telegraphy, Finley’s report attempted to subordinate their parts to his own.
He was old and tired, and some of his report was written from his sickbed. He suffered from a severely broken leg, which laid him up for more than three months. (Silverman, 2003, p. 428)
On 2 April 1872 Samuel F. B. Morse died. His former partner, F. O. J. Smith, and Lyman Case, editor of Great Industries of the United States, published cruel and largely untrue attacks against Morse regarding his primacy as inventor of the telegraph. He died without hearing the end of the war they waged on his life, and it is possible that the stresses of that conflict shortened his life.
Samuel F. B. Morse is remembered mainly for his pioneering work on the telegraph. From that invention it was only a few steps to the telephone, teletype, and modern communications.
Likewise, his Morse Code was used until the late 1920s by telegraphers in the United States and Canada. In 1851 the International Morse Code replaced the original with dots and dashes of consistent length. It is still used for some ship-to-shore communications and by operators in the Amateur Radio Service. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1985, p. 8:341)
It is appropriate to note that Morse felt art to be his greatest calling. Though at the time of his death he had not allowed himself to paint for years, he was an accomplished and celebrated painter, and much of his work survives today. Morse was a man of great talents, and he used those talents in the service of his beloved United States.
Encyclopaedia Britannica. (1985). Morse Code. Encyclopaedia Britannica . New York, New York, United States of America: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
Mabee, C. (1985). Samuel F. B. Morse. Encyclopaedia Britannica , 8 , 15. (P. W. Goetz, Ed.) Chicago, Illinois, United States of America: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
Silverman, K. (2003). Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.